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A look at the health industry's transition to electronic medical records

A common sight in doctors’ offices is a huge wall filled with paper patient files. But there's a move in the medical world to ditch the paper and go electronic. This week on WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care," hosts Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen speak with David Whitlinger, executive director of the New York eHealth Collaborative about the benefits of electronic medical records.

Lorraine Rapp: What’s prompted the transition from a paper system to an electronic one?

David Whitlinger: It is that era.  It is the last major industry across the globe to transform to data automation.  It’s very refreshing all of the capabilities and all of the new innovations that can occur through this transformation.  The records themselves now being digitized there’s so much more that can be done with that information both to help the providers and help the patients as well as the system in general that could never be done before when the information was simply on a piece of paper that was locked up in a small room either in the doctor’s office or the hospital.

Linda Lowen: How are medical practices responding?  Have they welcomed this with open arms, or is it across the board.

David Whitlinger: I think it’s gone through an evolution as well, and it’s also with a lot of support from the federal government.  With the Affordable Care Act, there was a large sum of money that was apportioned by Congress to help the healthcare industry on whole transform from paper records to electronic medical records, and it was in the neighborhood of 20 or 30 billion dollars that was allocated.  Physician practices that demonstrated that they were seeing large volumes of Medicaid patients were able to apply for and receive reimbursement for buying an electronic health record system, implementing it and demonstrating that they were using it meaningfully.  Hence the affectionate name the Meaningful Use Program.  This has done a massive transformation over the course of the last three years.  The National number three years ago for ambulatory practices was somewhere in the 10 percent range for having electronic health records.  Now we’re seeing that number is north of 40 percent.  In some communities, it’s north of 70 and 80 percent.  Particularly in New York, it’s around 60 percent and growing.  It’s expected that most physicians will have electronic health records as the principal practice of storage of the information within two to three years.  There was a lot of [resistance] up front.  Cost was a factor, usability was a factor.  Privacy and security and security issues were factors.  A lot of that has been dealt with.  The majority at this point are embracing it. 

Lorraine Rapp: Can you give us a couple of ways that we as patients will benefit by our doctors’ office[s] going all electronic?

David Whitlinger: We’re largely at the tip of the iceberg on that.  It’s an industry that’s just now embracing the computer age.  Where this really goes to is the next phase, and that’s in two different directions.  One is connecting, so that all of the different practices and all of the different hospitals and all the different places where people are receiving clinical care have access to all of the records.  The other aspect is that computers are really great at looking at minutiae and finding things and pointing things out that are relevant.  The software tools that help the clinician perhaps do a better job in diagnosis, better job in finding symptoms, and get to a resolution of health issues faster is something that is also on the forefront, and we’re already starting to see the systems that are accomplishing that come from various vendors.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.